Sunday 3 February 2013

52 FLOWERS: Morning glory

52 Flowers That Shook My World was originally a longer book. To make it less of a handful 20 of the flowers were left out of the published version - though some of their text was threaded back into the chapter introductions. Last year I decided to post some of the the original flowers as occasional blogs. Here is the cover flower and the first plant in the Bush School section.

8 Morning glory
Cyclades, Greece 1989

The first time I saw the morning glories was in Greece. I was sitting on the threshold of a whitewashed house belonging to an artist. There were remains of a dead rabbit on the steps and something in me instinctively knew it had been put there by one of the women of the island who bore the foreign owners a grudge. Even though I knew that this “evil eye” wasn’t personally directed at me it was unnerving. And so, equally instinctively, I had deliberately sat down in the open to drink a cup of coffee in the blinding morning sunshine.

It was then that I noticed the morning glory flowers spiralling up the old wooden doorway with their heart-shaped leaves. The flowers were a shining midnight blue, starlight was pouring out of their five-pointed magenta cores. In that moment their appearance seemed a kind of miracle in the fierce heat, surrounded by all those white walls, in the emptiness of the square and the feeling of invisible eyes watching. After that I always sat besides the flowers in the morning. The rabbit business ended after that.

At the time of the rabbit things had been shifting and changing in the metropolis where I had always lived. New and unusual messages were arriving in the city marketplace. Small wrinkled “organic” apples sat in my fruitbowl and I began to look at my dining table made of Indonesian teak and feel uncomfortable about a lifestyle I had been documenting all my working life. On the bookshelf native plant teachings were appearing amongst the cookbooks – medicine words from the ayahuasca vegetalistas of the Amazon, the coca-taking Kogi elders of Colombia - and Mayan, Hopi and Aboriginal prophecies concerning the future of the planet were being discussed where once we had only considered our next deadline. The ethno-botonist Terence McKenna had become the Timothy Leary of the day. No one in the city was dropping out exactly but some were taking planes into the rain forest and coming back with insights.

“What are they doing?” I had wondered myself, whilst a year before on a fashion shoot in the Peruvian jungle I watched several canoes push out from the shore of the lake and mysteriously point their prows towards the full moon. “Let’s go swimming,” said the fashion director as we stood with a brew of rainforest herbs in our hands, and began to take off her clothes. Suddenly we were all swimming naked in the limpid water, heedless of alligators, electric eels, piranha, and other kinds of small dangerous fauna. That night, wrapped in a shroud of mosquito netting and the hot frog-croaking night, I found myself writing in a form I had neglected for twenty years. It was a poem:

My circus life unclawed me. Tonight there were no dreams because there were no dreamers.

In the following summer of 1989, the dreams of the city became powered by reality-warping drugs, as LSD and ecstasy replaced cocaine and cocktails as the “in” experience, what you did at the weekend. For a brief and extremely uncharacteristic period everyone was loving everyone, in the dance halls and in each other’s arms. At a party during the Notting Hill Carnival, I absented from my role of the perfect hostess because I was too busy entwined in a loving embrace with a boy called Carl on the window ledge, watching police on horses charging down Westbourne Park Road. I remember laughing in a way I had not done for years.

It was Carl who told me first about hallucinogenics, what to do when you took them, how to remain sane. I remember looking at these small blue spots on white paper in the back of a taxi as we sped by Lancaster Gate. It was a hot July night, his birthday and I said: shall we take these tonight?

Carl said that taking hallucinogenics was like climbing a mountain. You have crampons on your feet that keep a firm grip, he told me, and you head for the summit. But if at any time you find yourself in trouble, remember we are attached, like mountaineers, with a cord. So you can come back to me. I am always here. Don’t forget that. I am always here.

He was there, for that night, in my flat. But afterwards he left. Because the summer of love in 1989, as all summers of love, did not last. It was chemically induced and, like all artificial promises, did not lead out of the dystopia of the city, past the police barricade, into what seemed like a new day. But some of it unravelled the tightly-knit lives we had all been leading at the time and made some of us change course where we might not have done so before.

There is no god. There is no village. I declared prophetically to visiting friends that weekend and told the fishmonger in Notting Hill Gate I could not buy his fish because they were all dead. Something had been shaken up. I had seen my flat on fire with my cats flying through the air, I had watched the walls ripple and crocodiles emerge from the pavements and rather than disturbing me, it liberated something inside. It showed me the world I thought was completely solid could completely change its shape depending on one’s perception of it, and though I knew these were genuine hallucinations (unlike the visions granted by the hallucinogenic plants that were to follow), it was the idea that the world was not fixed according to the dominant hegemony that grabbed my imagination. The existence of villages and gods, I realised,  depend on our agreement to see them in a particular way.

My own “breaking open the head” thus began with a synthetic version of a naturally-occurring chemical found in a plant I would later recognise and always love, the morning glory, whose luminous blue flowers heralded the new day like the star Venus and whose heart-shaped leaves would twine about my life thereafter. Most writers and creative people I knew at that time were open-minded and extremely sceptical about the status quo we were all part of. But not everyone acts on what they know in their hearts, what they see in the small hours of night on the top of a psychedelic mountain, in the deep moments of embrace, in the fleeting summers of love. What makes you act is your own sense of destiny which is a mysterious bargain you hold with life, to which only you have the key.

Tonight there were no dreams because there were no dreamers


When you go down into the underworld part of you never returns. That’s the deal. You eat the six seeds of the pomegranate and that action seals a certain bargain with life thereafter. It’s a deal nobody signs if they think about it, and yet those who do, never regret it. You see if you don’t go into the underworld you never find out what it means to go home. That’s why no one ever regrets initiation, however it comes. It makes your upperworld life very hard thereafter but your inner life becomes immeasurably rich. You have roots in the earth and you have a place to go to when you die. Those things count for everything. They make you bold and free. 

At one time, during the Neolithic times, these connections were an essential part of tribal life, a way of being on the earth that had remained stable for over 10,000 years. Everyone was initiated into them. Then when the first conquering cities appeared, the archaic earth mysteries, those rites of passage, were marginalised and turned into mystery schools. These schools ran alongside civilisations. They ran alongside dictatorships and tyrannies and  state religions and outlived them all. They were making sense of connections that lay outside the city boundaries. The most famous of these took place outside Athens at Eleusis. For a long time, maybe as long as two thousand years, these rites were mostly earth-bound and female, then they became solarised and male. Apollo took command of the Delphic oracle and the half-gods Orpheus and Dionysus took over from Demeter and Persephone. When Dionysus got torn up on the mountain, trampled like his sacred vines, his sacrifice became institutionalised as religion and those mythic transcendental events which kept us in touch with our starry origins, with our ancestors, and made meaning and beauty of our being on the planet, became derided as pagan and superstitious.

No one knew what happened in these initiation schools. It was assumed that secrets were transmitted and terrifying punishments were meted out if you “told”. But anyone who has really worked with plants, with mystery, knows how difficult it is to talk about these so called “secret” encounters. Nobody ever believes you if you do. This is partly because the reason-based educated mind will reject everything you say, thinking you are touched or have become some kind of drugfiend; but mostly because knowledge, what was once known as wisdom, does not exist in daily words or numbers or symbols. Those things can be signs of knowledge but they are not knowledge itself. The only way to know knowledge is to seek it and experience it first hand. That’s what life on earth is about really. First hand knowledge. You can’t hold on to that mystery or possess it or make a system out of it. You can have all kinds of rites and rituals and secrets and powers and priestly robes but as Carl used to say about life, you are either on the bus, or you are not. Only the real thing gets you home.

Most initiatory encounters with plants, especially hallucinogenic plants, call you immediately back to those archaic times when the earth-human connections were still vibrant and meaningful. You seek out ancestral lands where that archaic rhythm still resonates, where the wilderness is still intact. You search for tribal ways, elder wisdom, warrior acts and primal states. Your hands reach out for drums, full moons, caves, firelight. You long for lair-like shelters, river water, wilderness, storm, animal encounters. However sometimes you find there is a gap. Something is missing on the inside. Something that would link this world and our own.

When I went to Greece at the end of the summer of 89, after my brief exchanges with LSD and ecstasy, I slept in the rough stone house belonging to the artist and lived a Spartan life, as I had for several summers before in different places on the island. As I sat on the steps by the morning glory, collected water from a well, walked goat paths, picked figs and branches of oregano, washed my clothes in a spring, slept under stars, I felt myself living according to an ancient rhythm and something in this mythical landscape resonated in my bones, in some deep ancestral part of myself. In this simplicity, this roughness, under these huge starry skies at night, a whole inner world started to open up, I began to dream of birds and mountains and seas, and began to write those dreams down. And as the meltemi, the disturbing wind of October, blew under the door, I felt the first straining against a leash inside myself that would eventually lead to my departure.

The missing piece of the inner jigsaw, the bridge that connects you to your ancestral being, comes with mythology and dreams. This mythology is not from the mesas or rainforests of the Americas but from a Mediterranean culture deeply entwined with our own, a culture that deliberately broke its archaic mindset by fabricating a philosophy of reason that deliberately suppressed female spirituality and drove it underground. You could say all civilisations get their power by subjugating the female mysteries and using the female life-force for their own purposes: Egypt, China, India, Tibet. However the rationale of the Western world is based on ancient Greece - its law, education, science, philosophy, drama, architecture, psychology. Its soldiery may be based on the Northern barbarian and its administration on Rome but all its modern reason and culture, how it justifies all its barbaric acts, stem from the Athenian city-state. The ideals of this state are often depicted in statues - liberty, justice, wisdom, equality, the arts -  and all wear a female face but the living embodiments of these spiritual qualities are rarely seen.

Where you find these female beings are in the myths. And sometimes in your dreams, in the flowers that wind about your door.

It was on the doorsteps of that old Greek house that I remembered the myth of Persephone, at the time of the autumn equinox when her mysteries were originally performed thousands of years ago. This memory was to underpin the whole path of flowers that followed. It came out of the blue, just like the morning glory, reminding me there was something underneath this sparkling, grimy veneer we call civilisation and think is the one and only reality. Later I realised that’s how the ancestral always comes back to us: through dreams, visions, travels, encounters that you cannot explain or have words for, mysteriously.

Tonight I lie in the dark interior of the house as evening comes and I hear the men gather in the kafeneon; invisible voices filter up through the vines outside my window, as the light drains from the sky. I make no move to join them. Some part of me that had always sought out the vibrant day and the company of others is turning inward.

In this life there is a turning point, a time when you go inward, descend into the dark, into the depths, to meet the challenges of the underworld. I am 33, approaching this moment, about to bid farewell to these sunlit islands of my youth, the voyages on the blue caique, the dancing on the mountain to the drum made of goatskin, these rough hermitages of whitewashed stone. If you seek knowledge, to know your destiny in this life, you have at this turning point to journey into the invisible realms. If you want a guide, you can ask the plants to accompany you there. And the plants will take you there, as they have always done through time, all the way down into the caves, into the seedstore, into the realm of the dead, towards the ancestors, through into the sunlight, the starlight that lives in the heart of the earth.


There are several kinds of plant hallucinogens and those containing LSD, or D-Lysergic Acid Amide, form one botanical group. These chemicals are found naturally in morning glory seeds and in the ergot fungus that grows on rye and other grasses. Ergot is believed to be the foundation of the elixir that inspired the sacred rites of the barley goddess Demeter. Morning glory seeds, known as ololuiqui, were sacred to the indigenous Indians of Mexico until ruthless suppression by the invading Spanish conquistadors drove their use underground. The ololuiqui seed comes from the convolvulus vine, rivea corymbosa, known in Nahuatl as coaxihuitl, the snake plant, but its particular hallucinogenic potency wasn’t recognised until four centuries later, when a Swiss chemist called Albert Hoffman, identified LSD from ergot in 1938 and took a dose by accident. It was an initiatory event that would shake the modern world.

When LSD was synthesised in the late fifties it was hailed as a great liberator of mankind and used with astounding success in experimental psychology at the time. Gordon Wasson, the American writer and mycologist who came across the ceremonial use of psylocybe cubensis in the mountains of Oaxaca at the same time, invited Hofmann to Mexico, where they discovered a third sacred hallucinogenic, an unknown sage called diviner’s mint. Later these plant pioneers collaborated on a book called The Road to Eleusis: Unveiling the Mysteries, in which they concluded that the kykeon imbibed by the initiates of the ancient world contained an entheogen (a word they also invented, meaning a mind-altering plant that inspires a “divine experience”), was most probably the dark ergot that grew on Demeter’s sacred grains.
The effect of all entheogens is to transport one from the personal into the transpersonal realms. The price it exacts for this passage is what is known as the death of the ego, a dramatic internal event that is documented throughout the spiritual history of mankind. StanislaV Grof, a psychiatrist from Prague, who conducted over 4000 sessions with LSD in the 1960s noted the initiatory feelings of terror, loss of control and panic often led to encounters with mythical realms and archetypal beings. Many followed the same pattern: a primal state of oceanic bliss and unity, experiences of no-exit, titanic fight and annihilation of all known points of reference and finally a sense of redemption and a rebirth into a world of light, love and liberation. The modern world, he conjectured from this research, was a reflection of this process on a collective level. As a species we could either keep projecting and acting out its destructive phases, or we could internalise them and reach an extraordinary leap of consciousness.

After suffering all kinds of mental and emotional torments, the first explorer of LSD walked through his kitchen door and into the glorious morning outside. “It had been raining in the night,” Hofmann told Grof in an interview at the Esalen Institute in 1984. “I had the feeling that I saw the earth and the beauty of nature as it had been when it had been created, at the first day of creation. It was a beautiful experience. I was reborn, seeing nature in quite a new light.”

For Hofmann his medicine for the soul was “a tool that turns us into what we are supposed to be” and he was deeply dismayed by its recreational use in the huge burst of psychedelic experimentation that shook the Western world in the mid-sixties and seventies. In spite of Grof’s assertion that the human drive for transcendence was stronger than sex, most people didn’t make it through the door and into the morning. The liberation that should have happened never did. A modern “inquisition” on hallucinogenic plants squashed all research on their effect on human consciousness and even morning glory seeds sold in garden centres were reputedly coated to prevent their ingestion. People, unable to cope with the demands of Hofmann’s alchemical tool, awoke to find their psyches warped by their experiences. There were good trips, but there were also very bad ones.

You need a sound mind and a sound body as well as the right “set and setting” to encounter the imaginal realms. This is hard to do without a proper cultural context in which quest, rites of passage and initiation are consciously acknowledged as vital events in our lives. The indigenous tribes traditionally took 13 morning glory seeds, but modern ingestion of the seeds or their chemical equivalent varies between 300-2000. The huge discrepancy in dosage speaks volumes about our density and ”fall into matter”. We have no traditional relationship with either the plant kingdom or the spiritual realms, and “trips” are rarely conducted in a sacred, communal or healing context. Most take place silently inside people’s heads. The kind of mental incoherence and negative darkness that can occur is a direct result of our alienation from the physical and transcendent earth.

“LSD should have been subject to the same taboos and the same reverence the Indians had towards these substances,” said Hofmann of his problem child.

The real problem with LSD however, as with all chemical derivatives, is that they are chemical and derivative and therefore not coherent as a substance. Their internal structure and outer form is fabricated in a laboratory, rather than arising naturally from the crucible of the earth and sun. The blue spot on the paper is not the blue flower. So not only is there a physical lack of connection to nature but also a spiritual one. There are no plant teachers to guide a safe passage through the night, toward the mysteries, towards the door. When I took LSD in the city that summer all I saw were artificial patterns and “cracks in the edifice of materialistic rationality” as Wasson once put it. Something had definitely shifted in the night.

But it was Mexico, land of the ololuiqui, peyote, the diviner’s mint and ceremonial mushroom that really led me out of the door.


The second time I saw the morning glories was on another Mediterranean island, in the fields of Deia, Majorca. They grew in profusion, a mass of blue eyes, in the deep dark ditches that surrounded the house of the writer and mythologist, Robert Graves. After travelling for two years in Latin America we had returned to Europe and were looking for somewhere to live. It was a difficult time and finding those morning glories that day suddenly lifted our spirits in an extraordinary way. During the night in the hotel in the town square I felt my body full of strange energies and my dreams full of cosmic shapes and lights. I could hardly sleep. The following afternoon on return to Palma, I went to an exhibition of photographs that documented Graves’ turbulent life with his female muses and the rustic life he spent in the hills of Deia.

At one photograph I was stopped in my tracks. The poet was standing on his rough stone terrace. Our eyes met. Graves was old when the picture had been taken and most of his mind had disappeared, but something in his face arrested my attention. It shocked me to the core. Not because he had aged, but because he looked entirely like a woman. It felt as if an old woman had possessed his face in an act of terrible revenge.

Graves spent years praising the White Goddess, the mythological matriarch of the ancient world whose service he wrote was the basis of all true poetry and life on earth. But this was a life dedicated to a goddess who was, by his own admission, cruel and heartless. Driven underground by the philosophers of the city-state this moon-faced deity, had become, like all suppressed women, furious and vengeful. She sat in her wild mountain nest littered with the bones of poets, and dissolved the minds of men, in spite of their unquestioning loyalty.

I knew however that Persephone loved the poets more than anyone. As she loved Dionysus and Apollo and Hermes, and all those who dared to enter the underworld with only their hearts and imaginations to guide them. She did not require their worship or their sacrifice. When I turned inward, I found myself exploring a territory that is traditionally the preserve of men - nature, spirituality, mythology, mysteries, medicine – and yet is not entirely theirs, for without female wisdom neither love nor liberation nor return is possible. In the lesser known female myths of the underworld, Innana is stripped of all she possesses and left on a hook, Psyche is given six impossible tasks. Inside myself, the lines of my life were tangled into knots. It felt as though they had not been straight for thousands and thousands of years. 

I sat in the darkness, as night came to the island, with my underworld tasks before me. It would take a life-time to untangle these threads, to unhook myself, to sort these seeds. But instinctively, as I had once sat down by the dead rabbit, I knew that the female fury that so cruelly distorted our world could only be abated by the presence of another kind of being. And that I was going to have to be that being, neither goddess, nor harridan, but someone entirely new.

Prepping a reading of 52 Flowers at Bungay Library, August 2012: September morning glory (Mark Watson); cover of The White Goddess (Faber and Faber)

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